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Inviting Men to the Women in Leadership Conversation: A Q & A with Eva Helén

May 1, 2018 Kristen Howe

Linkage EVP Susan MacKenty Brady spends most of her time on the road partnering with organizations worldwide to advance women in leadership and create more inclusive work cultures. She has met some remarkable leaders who inspire her—about new and different ways to move the gender parity conversation forward.

Recently, she sat down with Eva Helén, founder and CEO of EQ Inspiration, an organization focused on engaging men to join the conversation on improving equality and advancing women to leadership in technology. Eva has 20 years of leadership experience in the tech industry. She is an entrepreneur, co-founder of two successful software companies, and a role model for women. Here, she shares her biggest challenge as a woman leader in a male dominated industry, the downside to #metoo, inherent gender differences, and the noteworthy mission of her latest venture.

Susan: The second technology company that you co-founded was acquired in 2015. You shared that the transition within the acquiring company was quite the awakening for you as a woman leader in tech. Why?

Eva: Yes, it was. I was used to doing things my way with a good leadership team and advisors making suggestions or willing to discuss my ideas and decisions, but I never had a sense that I, nor my decisions, were perceived as less valuable because of my gender. When I entered a bigger company, that changed overnight. I spent a year being frustrated at the way I was being treated. I was told that I had to “prove myself” and when I did, I was asked to “slow down.” Additionally, there was no official support for women internally and I found that there were very few women above the Senior Director level. Of the women who managed to break through the very low glass ceiling, even fewer stayed. I just wasn’t prepared for it, and emotions I had not felt since I realized that women are treated differently than men (in my early 20s) overwhelmed me. After leaving this role, I thought long and hard about what I could do for other women in this kind of (in my mind) unbelievably old fashioned and unbalanced situation.

Susan: You decided that you wanted to help more women. How are you doing that?

Eva: There are so many amazing organizations by, with, and for women. I feel like this space is saturated—that the need to support and be supported by women is met. There is an organization for every woman in business, in tech, in finance, independent, and entrepreneurs that you can think of. The need for these organizations will never diminish, and we should continue to nurture them. If anything, more women are looking for support by joining these groups.

The next key step is to get these women to move above and beyond the safe zone provided by these networks, to go further than listening to become role models who discuss their experiences, ultimately gain more confidence and advance to greater leadership positions. This requires offering the women who are ready for the next level the opportunity to attend programs like the one Linkage offers—your Women in Leadership Institute comes to mind. Also, encourage active mentoring, initiate conversations with supportive men, and make all experiences first hand, with the knowledge of what other women have done.

After talking to a lot of women, it became clear to me that the women’s organizations and networks will work just as well with or without me, so I thought about what’s not already being done today and where I can contribute to move the equality needle. I started questioning where the men were in these conversations of how we reach equality. I asked men if they would join if I organized “women in tech – an event for guys.” Many said yes and that was the beginning for EQ Inspiration.

Our mission at EQ Inspiration is to make men role models (by that I mean guys who are actively supporting women’s advancement) visible to women. I interview the role model candidates, experts on inclusion, and, of course, other women who share their knowledge and experiences with the audience to determine viable mentor/mentee partnerships. But arguably the most important ingredient of EQ Inspiration is the networking. New connections between people who normally wouldn’t meet. I try to lower the barriers to enter the discussion so that we can get some interesting conversations going. It lets us see people for who they really are and not based on assumptions we are making. It’s humbling, fun, and intriguing work.

 Susan: You talk about differences between men and women as one of the challenges, can you describe what you mean?

Eva: As much as I encourage people not to categorize and generalize, that’s exactly what I’m doing here, so bear with me. I ask that the obvious differences between women and men, and the assumptions that men and women want different things based on our different needs, be put aside. There are many women and men who want the same things, so it’s almost like we need to re-categorize. Call it women and men “feminists” at one extreme end of the spectrum, and suppression of women at the other end, with all nuances in between. We can’t assume that all women want the same thing, but the women’s spectrum is narrower than the men’s.

Please note that the following grouping is not rating men as good or bad, simply an observation of their understanding and levels of engagement. If we look at men for the purpose of improving equality in the workplace, there are the “Experts,” the men who have taken on the task of supporting women by bettering themselves and educating other men. There are very few of these men, but to name a few who I’ve met and/or worked with: Dr. David Smith and his co-author of Athena Rising, Lars Einar Engstrom in Sweden, Michael Kimmel, the team at MARC, Ray Arata of the Inclusionary Leadership Group, Max Andersson, and JC Boccella.

The next group of men are the “Change Agents.” The men who not only get it, but also actively support women’s advancement through initiating corporate programs, processes, mentoring, sponsoring women, measuring and reporting change and results. They hold themselves and their teams responsible. They don’t expect HR to do the work. They are change agents of corporate culture and lead by example. They are role models for other men, who they teach by doing.

Change Agents can be found anywhere on the corporate ladder. It can be a leader at the top who says that he will not fill a role until he finds a woman (who has the competence necessary); a team leader or a manager who demonstrates inclusive leadership of their team; an organizational leader who gets rid of barriers that promote equal opportunity; and, at an individual contributor level, a man who does his share to see, hear, and recognize women peers. The leadership by example changes the culture in the organization from within and is the most sustainable way to reach equality. It is the best way to get the men who don’t know why they should care to start awakening and changing their attitude toward inclusion of women and minorities.

The difference between men and men—due to upbringing, peer pressure, assumptions of what men should be like, and so on—doesn’t necessarily cause conflict among men, but it’s something that we (women) have to be aware of. As a woman, it makes no sense to try to convince the men who “don’t care or don’t want to understand” why diverse teams are better. The men who don’t care or, worse, are actively working to push women out, can be found at all levels in the organization.

Rather than focusing on this group, our energy should go toward continuing to support the Experts and Change Agents. After that, we should try to make more of the largest group into change makers. Let’s call this group the “Convincible Resistance.” It ranges from the men who are “enablers,” (a term coined by Joseph Mouzon, Chief Strategic Investment Officer at the Association for Women in Science) silently standing by letting inequality continue, to the men who: a) Know they should care about equality; b) Know it’s the right thing to do; c) have women around them whom they care about, so they’re wondering what they can do to support women in their workplace; and, d) Men who want to treat men and women equally but are scared to do the wrong thing. In short, it’s all men who want to support equality but are not sure what or how they can do that.

Susan: You talk about fear and a silent backlash after the #metoo movement. What do you mean by that, and how can we address it?

Eva: This makes me think of the old proverb. I’d like to suggest that we reverse it from “Speech is silver, silence is golden” to “speech is golden.”

Let’s talk about the average guy in the workplace, if there is such a guy. He’s not the obsessive hugger, or needy, or the “complimenter,” or the “hoverer,” or however you want to categorize the guys who make us (women) uncomfortable in the workplace. The average guy never, or almost never, made a woman uncomfortable, and if he ever did he wasn’t told he did, so he doesn’t know about it.

Now, our average guy hears about the #metoo movement, learns that women around him are not happy and that maybe, just maybe, he’s been part of making his women coworkers uncomfortable. He has no idea how to deal with this. He backs away, quietly, and closes his door. He may talk in private with another man, who also doesn’t know how to deal with this situation, but most likely, he figures it’s easier to just be silent. That’s him protecting his ignorance.

I would like to encourage these men to ask questions, and I am trying to create an environment where it’s safe to ask any and all questions at EQ Inspiration. I offer to set up and moderate all-male panels at women’s events. It’s sensitive, as many women are angry. I speak to all male audiences about realizing their power as individuals. I am a strong believer that we have to work on the communication between women and men, and that it’s our (the people who get equality) responsibility to reach beyond the people who are already engaged in equality work to engage the “convincible resistance.”

We have to work together across genders, generations, and business roles to reach equality. And by the way, I should have started with this: by equality I mean a 50/50 split of women and men at all levels in the organization—simply a reflection of the society in which we live.

Susan: How do you work with men and women once they are ready to move to the next level, either as mentors, supporters, leaders, or role models for equality?

Eva: I don’t. I offer a network of organizations, an ecosystem of vendors improving inclusion and equality. This is why I was so excited to learn about Linkage. What you offer and do matters and it’s so important. Every man or woman who is ready to truly understand what it means to live and lead inclusively, I invite to connect with you.

Susan: Thank you so much for talking to me today.

Eva: Thank you!

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